Thursday, October 05, 2006

They Used to Call Me "Betty" - The Power of Naming Our Own Realities

To name is to define and shape reality. For eons women have accepted male naming as a given, especially in the spiritual realm. The fact is, for along time now, men have been naming the world, God, sacred reality, and even women from
their own masculine perspective and experience and calling it universal experience . . . This naming tend[s] to benefit men’s needs and concerns and in lots of cases to oppress women. [Is] it such a wild thought that women might start naming God, sacred reality, and their own lives themselves?

(Sue Monk Kidd, The Dance of the Dissident Daughter: A Woman’s Journey from Christian Tradition to the Sacred Feminine San Francisco: Harper, 1996, p. 38)

They used to call me “Betty.”

Both of my grandmas bore the name Elizabeth, and family politics being what they are, Elizabeth was the obvious choice for the second child, a daughter, born to my parents in 1960. And so, I was christened Elizabeth Eileen Nagy, but, like my grandmothers before me, everyone called me “Betty.” Betty! There is not a woman’s name I can think of with more nicknames than Elizabeth: Liz, Lizzy, Liza, Libby, Beth, Bets, Betsy, Babs, Lil Bit, and more, yet, somehow our clan had settled on “Betty” as the preferred diminutive. Now, lest I offend the Bettys of the world, my grandmothers among them, it is a fine name, an upstanding and even wholesome name, but somehow it just never felt like mine. It didn’t seem to fit – like shoes two sizes too small, or jeans I’d outgrown, the name, simply put, ‘pinched.’

I mastered writing my name at an early age, afterall, I only had to learn four letters. And I loved answering the question designed to show off how much I’d learned, “How do you spell your name?” “B-E-T-T-Y,” I reply confidently. However, while much easier to spell than some of my friends’ names, “Betty,” conjured up for me visions of my dearly-loved but ancient grandmothers, or worse yet, old maids, spinsters – unmarried and unloved - an image often reinforced by my older brother when, in his unkind moments, he called me an “old biddy.” And it didn’t help that no girls my age went by the name either- Liz, Libby, Beth, yes, but no Betty. Only fictional cartoon characters, and ditzy ones at that, were called by my name – Betty Boop, Betty Rubble, Betty from the Archie comic books. So, I grew up despising my name (and myself, were I totally honest) because it didn’t fit who I was, who I wanted to be.

The lack of fit intensified as I grew older such that when I relocated to a new city a number of years ago, I decided to ‘change’ my name. Rather than introducing myself to new people I met as “Betty,” I asked them to call me “Elizabeth.” It has taken years for my family to adjust to this ‘new’ moniker, but finally I have a name that fits. It is strong, and regal, and seems ‘just the right size.’ They used to call me “Betty,” but I have chosen to rename myself. Hello, my name is “Elizabeth.”

They used to call me “bossy.”

From the time I was quite young, I have had a clear sense of how things “should” be. I have eyes to see order in the midst of chaos, and organization where none exists. I can be decisive in the face of indecision, and boldly confident when others feel insecure. Such behaviors in a young woman, I early discovered are undesirable and are, so I was repeatedly reminded, counter to my gender. Persistently acting out such behaviors, succumbing to these ‘manly’ traits earned me the name, “bossy.” But it was a label that didn’t seem to fit. I was not intending to be anyone’s boss, nor was I trying to take control. Clearly, it was meant as an insult, meant to put me in my place, or rather to remind me of my “place.” And it communicated that what came naturally to me, what was part of my bent or personality was somehow inappropriate, unnatural and wrong. So, I grew up despising my “bossy-ness” (and myself, were I totally honest) because it wasn’t acceptable. It was a deficiency in me that made me unacceptable.

And so I tried, really I did, to suppress the ideas, to silence that in me which compelled me to suggest change, to take initiative, or lead the way. I didn’t want to be ‘in charge,’ or to take away from any male’s position or authority. I just couldn’t halt the flow of ideas and insights. The “better” way to do something always seemed so obvious to me. I just couldn’t help myself. I had to speak up. Again and again, I would find myself labeled “bossy”, or in one particular Christian context, accused of having a “Jezebel Spirit.” Repeated exorcisms (literally) failed to deliver me of this most dreaded of demons. And so I would be called “bossy” whether it fit me or not, and would repentantly bear the imposed discipline for this un-lady-like and, worse yet, un-godly behavior. And time after time, I would compact my very self smaller and smaller wanting desperately to earn a different label, be called by a different name, a name that fit.

“What has been valued in the West [and the western Church] in women has too often been defined only in relation to the masculine: the good, nurturant mother and wife; the sweet, docile agreeable daughter; the gently supportive or bright achieving partner. This collective model [this superimposed name] is inadequate for life; we mutilate, depotentiate, silence, and enrage ourselves trying to compress our souls into it just as surely as our grandmothers deformed their fully breathing bodies with corsets for the sake of an ideal.”

(Sylvia Perera, quoted by Sue Monk Kidd, The Dance of the Dissident Daughter: A woman’s Journey from Christian Tradition to the Sacred Feminine, San Francisco: Harper, 1996, p. 45; brackets mine)

Such squeezing, such compression to make myself fit another’s name and expectation for me felt wholly unnatural. Gradually, I became painfully aware of how uncomfortable it was for me to wear a name that didn’t belong to me, that didn’t fit. I also noticed that while Scripture was being used to expose my defects, my un-lady-like and ‘ungodly’ behavior, I did not sense any such censure from God. This awakening, this realization began slowly and then burst forth, “Wait a minute! If God does not accuse me, why should I accuse myself? If God is not displeased with my behavior, with me, then why should I be? If God does not name me “bossy,” why should I call myself that?” Yes, I am strong, outspoken, an organizer, a visionary. But maybe, just maybe, I deserve a new name, a name that fits. They used to call me “bossy,” but I have chosen to rename myself. Hello, my name is “leader.”

And it is from within this sense of dissatisfaction with wearing labels that no longer fit, this intolerance for ways of being and doing that no longer work that I now live into my call to lead. It is from this hard won right, this privilege-without-price to rename myself and my world that I now venture forth into ministry. For, I have come to a place in my life where it no longer feels acceptable or healthy to reshape myself to fit another’s label. It is no longer tolerable to wear names that do not fit. And I have only grown in my conviction that God neither expects nor require me to.

Currently, I am in the process of renaming:
Church Planting
Success . . . and on and on

While I claim the right to rename myself, my faith, my God, I know that I can only rightly and appropriately do so together, in conversation with those who also have found the old names, old labels, old ways of being to be confining and constricting. And now, as always, I remain submitted to the guidance of the Holy Spirit to help find the names that don’t compress or constrict. In community with God and others I am choosing to discover for myself names that fit. Hello, my name is . . .


  • Thanks for this piece of writing. It is truly inspiring. I have had moments of renaming in my life and feel absolutely freed (in part due to this post) to continue accepting what 'fits' and not what others merely say of me.


    By Anonymous katherine, at 6:42 AM  

  • I'm amazed sometimes how my personal definitions of words need to be reconfigured and redirected. Their connotations have taken on a life of their own that really have no relationship to the actual denotations. Some I've had to throw out, they've imbedded so deeply into my life that I can't untangle the weed from the good plant. Others I've been able to pull out root, stalk and seed, and replant something worthy, better, and healthier in their place. But it constantly amazes me, whether I'm able to reuse old words, recycling the old meaning, or replacing it with new words, I keep tripping over the contexts in which I use the words. The paradigm I live in just isn't as easily altered. The conversations and relationships that fought those bad connotations into existance keep waging war on my new words, my new meanings...

    By Blogger Charlotte Wyncoop, at 8:05 PM  

  • I found your blog via Jesus Creed and was immediately hooked. I grew up Cindy which metamorphed into Cindi because my friends thought it was cuter. As an adult I claimed Cynthia and still have to struggle with people who don't like my choice or the fact that I chose. I am a Christian who's been on a long and winding journey from fundamentalism and leave friends aghast when I refer to the Almighty as God/dess. Naming things, understanding them within context is vital for a personal understanding and experience of the divine.

    By Blogger Cynthia, at 10:27 AM  

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